Lord of the Rings
A Critical Note
|Map of Middle Earth / Arda|
In a previous posting I reviewed the first of The Lord of the Rings movies; here I will discuss some aspects of the novels.1
It is well known among Tolkien fans that J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) started writing about his fantasy universe before the First World War and that he continued to do so right until his death. Further that his fascination with Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Celtic mythology, along with making up languages just for the hell of it made him interested in Anglo-Saxon and started his academic career by which he eventually became a Don at Oxford University. Other things about Tolkien and his fantasy universe are less well known.2
It is for example not that well known that the first novel that Tolkien worked on was in the fact the posthumously published Silmarillion, and that Tolkien was never happy with it, kept revising it and it is from a mass of notes and manuscripts Christopher Tolkien was able to piece together the Silmarillion. In fact more than 30 years later Christopher Tolkien was able to flesh out from his father’s notes a story in the Silmarillion which Christopher Tolkien gave the title Children of Hurin. Christopher in the meantime managed to publish, in a multi volume series his fathers, notes, drafts and other documents concerning Tolkien’s mythical world that not only give a full picture of said world but give an interesting glimpse into the creative process of writing.3
When the Silmarillion was published, although it was a massive best seller, the reaction of Tolkien fans, or at least a great many of them was perplexity. That was because unlike The Lord the Rings the work was written almost entirely in a high style clearly modeled on Germanic epics, like Beowulf and frankly Icelandic sagas. The homey, cozy touches that existed in The Lord of the Rings where almost entirely absent. Why this was so is an interesting story.
The answer was that what was absent was hobbits. Those exemplars of the quintessence of Englishness simply do not exist in the Silmarillion. In fact in many respects the hobbits, with their multiple breakfasts, their cozy, mindless small smugness are quite antithetical to the spirit of epic adventure that is the world of The Lord of the Rings.
That disjunction between the warm cozy hobbits and the epic world of dark forces, ruling rings and grand battles results in a series of novels in which the hobbits don’t quite fit in.
Just how did this happen? Well in 1936 Tolkien published for money, a children’s book called The Hobbit, which he had originally written for his own children with no intention to publish. It was designed to be a one off and to appeal to children. Hobbits in this tale are supposed to be semi-magical creatures, who are now in hiding and but in the past lived in the open. In other words the setting was earth long ago. The protagonist Bilbo Baggins was meant to be both someone who the children could identify with and someone who was completely non-threatening. The result was the cozy, safe and warm aspects of hobbits. This was in other words a children’s book that was not intended of being the same world as The Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. In fact the first edition of The Hobbit is different from subsequent editions. For example the whole sequence of Bilbo acquiring the ring from Gollum was completely rewritten. In the original edition Gollum was still evil but not out to kill Bilbo. Further the ring was just a ring that created invisibility not the ruling ring. Tolkien also added other touches to subsequent editions that further tied The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien was asked to do a sequel to The Hobbit, and he decided to tie in the world of the Hobbit with the great mythical universe he had created i.e., Middle Earth / Arda.
Just why Tolkien did so is a bit mysterious, but the hobbits did and do add a level of humanity to the overblown epicness of The Lord of the Rings. In fact one piece of evidence that Tolkien’s addition of hobbits to the world he created was ad-hoc is that he apparently never supplied even in his notes an origin story for the hobbits. In fact the nearest thing we get to the origins of the hobbits is that they are divided into three groups. One group is Manlike, another is Elflike and the third seems to be Dwarflike. So it looks like the hobbits were a separate idea worked into previously existing universe and the fit was not quite perfect.
Other things changed also. In The Hobbit the world described is earth long ago. In the revamped world in which the hobbits are now placed the world is now ‘Middle Earth”, and it is not our world but another called Arda. In fact at onetime this world was flat and not round and the sun and the moon go about in stately boats through gates of heaven. It is a world of powerful gods presided over by a high god called “The One”. It is unlike the original world of The Hobbit not our Earth.
Having forced the hobbits into his fantasy universe Tolkien now had to work them into the plot of The Lord of the Rings. So he made a hobbit, Frodo, the central hero and made him a relative of Bilbo from The Hobbit. And he introduced the cozy, bourgeois cuteness of the hobbits into The Lord of the Rings. Now since the hobbits were created for a children’s book they are basically childish creatures created to appeal to children. The results were not all good.
Although the hobbits introduced an element of warmth, i.e., humanity into the The Lord of the Rings, it also introduced an element of childishness and infantile cuteness into the novels. The disjunction between the infantile nature of much of the hobbit material and the grand epic canvas of the novels did not mesh together perfectly.
In a word the hobbits in the novels were often annoying, and their childishness both disconcerting at times and saccharine. To hear the hobbits talk their small childish talk and their petty childish speak of first, second and third breakfasts is to experience annoyance. Now one of the successes of the films is that, surprise, surprise the hobbits are vastly less annoying, for instead of being cutesy children they come across as adults. Whereas in the novels they often come across as those annoying children you can’t get rid of. One could argue, and some have, that the fact that Sauron hates hobbits means he isn’t all bad.4
This is of course another feature of Tolkien’s epic world. It is that Tolkien in many respects balked at making it fully adult. It has been called “Epic Pooh”, a sort of epic a la Winnie the Pooh, not for adults and not for people who take life seriously, instead it is comfortable “safe” fantasy, and the vein of childishness that runs through it is quite evident.5 Certainly the appeal of Tolkien’s story is to a large extent not the story itself but the epic scale of the backdrop. In fact the depth, detail and realism of Tolkien’s background are compelling and appeal to the imagination. Middle Earth / Arda feels like a real place.
The realism, believability of Middle Earth jars not so well with the kiddie aspects of the novels. For example the infamous Tom Bombadil sequence in the first novel.6 The childish nonsense spewing out of the character’s mouth, if that doesn’t set your teeth on edge, the absolute flatulatulatenary nature of the character will have you eating wall paste.
Fortunately the entire Tom Bombadil sequence can be safely ignored as it serves no purpose and can easily be dispensed with. Sadly the same can’t be said for Tolkien’s poetry which runs the gamut from the merely mediocre to unspeakably, criminally hideous. Fortunately the movies left out Tom Bombadil and practically all Tolkien’s excremental poetry.
The result is that The Lord of the Rings is a hodge podge of elements that do not quite gel together and in fact sit uneasily together in an undigested literary stew. Finally the writing is variable and no one would credit Tolkien with a great literary talent. Certainly the fact that the poetry is generally terrible when not mediocre would argue against Tolkien has a major literary talent. Also much of The Lord of the Rings is badly written. The whole scouring of the Shire sequence in the last novel is simply redundant, dull and a mess.7
So why read it? Well if some of it is badly written other parts are well written. If when writing about the dull and mediocre Tolkien is dull, mediocre and sometimes much worst, when what Tolkien writes about is epic his writing can soar to the epic heights required. Thus the mines of Moria sequence in the first novel is a very well written sequence, so too is the battle of Pelennor Fields in the third novel. Also I could add the whole Shelob sequence in the second novel. Finally the whole sequence of the destruction of the ring and Gollum’s death in the third novel.
In those bits Tolkien does justice to the epic scale of the material. You really do feel that worlds will rise and fall, that all depends on what one hobbit is doing. The battles are real and mean something, not mere child’s play. It is interesting that in those aspects when they intersect his hobbit characters, they are the least childish and annoying and the novel’s lose the “Epic Pooh”. Aspect and become life and death, good and evil fights to the finish.
Finally the detailed background that Tolkien gave his work. As seen in the appendices to the third novel, with its languages, genealogy charts and chronologies give a sense of realism to the work that is so signally lacking in much fantasy. Middle Earth feels real so that the reader can more easily suspend disbelief and think of Middle Earth / Arda as a real place where real things happen to real people.
Tolkien universe is believable and because it is so the reader can care for what happens to the characters in it. It is this ability to make us care about what happens to his characters that makes The Lord of the Rings a superior fantasy novel. The creatures in it may be strange and even non-human, dwarves, elves, hobbits and yes some humans but we care about what happens to them and that is what Tolkien achieved by making Middle Earth / Arda feel like a real place.
Believability is what Tolkien brought to the table and the result is that his faults as a writer are forgivable; or more accurately we can ignore them. That there is a strong sense of nostalgia for the past, for the England that Tolkien thought was disappearing is also obvious. But that is for another posting.
But in the end The Lord of the Rings is the not entirely successful fusion of the kiddie fantasy old earth of The Hobbit and the Middle Earth of Tolkien’s adult fantasy epic imagination. If it was not an entire success it was enough of a success to have had an enormous influence on popular culture and literature.
|Map of Middle Earth / Arda|
2. J. R. R. Tolkien, Wikipedia Here.
3. Christopher Tolkien’s publication of every note and scrap of paper his father worked is a bit awe inspiring and amazing. It also if anything makes the world of Middle Earth / Arda even more convincing as an actual existing world. These writings are easily found.
4. Moorcock, Michael, Epic Pooh, Revolution Science Fiction Here (Originally Published 1978).
6. The Lord of the Rings is divided into three novels. The first is The Fellowship of the Ring, The second is The Two Towers and the third is The Return of the King.
7. For a critique Tolkien as a fantasy writer see Edwards, Malcolm & Holdstock, Robert, Middle Earth, in Editors same as above authors, Realms of Fantasy, Paper Tiger, Limpsfield Surrey, 1983, pp. 11-22.